In A Man and His Ship: America’s Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the SS Unites States (Simon & Schuster), Steven Ujifusa presents a vibrant and compelling account of a true American original and his masterpiece. Like the story of John Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge, the tale of William Francis Gibbs and the creation of the fastest, finest ocean liner ever built encompasses not only the biography of an inspiring visionary, but the politics, culture, and industry of a dynamic period in our nation’s history, in this case much of the twentieth century.
Want to experience this fascinating period of the ocean liner? Here, Ujifusa lists four New York City spots where you can relive that golden age of travel.
The Palm Court at The Plaza Hotel
768 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10019
Ships during the early twentieth century had interiors that mimicked French chateaux and English manor houses. The Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel is very similar to the lounges and dining saloons aboard grand pre-World War I liners such as the Mauretania, Olympic, and Aquitania. One liner, the German Imperator of 1913, had so much marble in her first class areas that she was dangerously top heavy! Edwardian formality prevailed until the 1930s: full evening dress for men and women was de rigueur. Titanic survivor Edith Rosenbaum wrote that she felt she was traveling in a “big hotel, instead of on a cozy ship; everyone is so stiff and formal.”
25 North Moore Street
New York, NY 10013
In a ship’s first class smoking room, passengers could enjoy the best cognac and port in settings resembling the finest metropolitan clubs in London, New York, and Paris, complete with wood paneling, overstuffed chairs, and working fireplaces. By the 1950s, smoking rooms were no longer male-only venues, and the décor sleeker. Stewards still discreetly warned passengers of professional gamblers lurking at the card tables. Aboard the SS United States, passengers could enjoy frogs legs served from a brass tureen. Note: aside from the outside terrace, there is no smoking at today’s Brandy Library.
The Flatiron Lounge
37 West 19th Street
New York, NY 10011
During the Roaring Twenties, Americans like Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald headed to Europe aboard foreign-flagged ocean liners to escape Prohibition. The SS Ile de France, a French liner completed in 1927, supposedly had the longest bar afloat. Hot jazz bands blared from the ballroom stage, and European bartenders deftly mixed passengers’ favorite American cocktails. Ship aficionado and frequent traveler Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, was quite partial to martinis, a drink that Winston Churchill found revolting.
The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel Lobby
301 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10022
One commander of the SS United States, completed in 1952, described her as one of the last of the great “floating Waldorf-Astorias.” The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue was completed in 1931, five years before the SS United States’s legendary rival Queen Mary made her maiden voyage. The Waldorf-Astoria’s lobby is a great place to recapture the ambience of this British liner’s first class spaces. The Queen Mary’s first class lounge soared three decks high, with plenty of overstuffed chairs where passengers could read the ship’s newspaper or a novel from the library. Her interiors decorated with woods from every corner of the British Empire, as well as gleaming brass, tooled leather, and marble fireplaces. Fittingly, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, frequent passengers on both the Queen Mary and the SS United States, always stayed at the Waldorf when in New York.